This morning I decided to leave Barcelona and head north to visit my good friend Griffin in the Basque Country. I felt listless in Barcelona. It had been over two weeks since I’d stepped off the ship, and I’d been bouncing around Italy and Spain ever since. In Barcelona I’d been in a 6-bed dorm for a week when one of my roommates broke open my safe and stole part of my summer’s wages. I felt betrayed and alone, and I yearned to be with a friend I could trust in a city that felt familiar.
I phoned Griffin and told him I was coming to San Sebastian, our home away from America. I took a bus out of Barcelona and immediately pulled out my laptop and put on a movie as we drove along the base of the Pyrenees. All morning I had been meditating on the balance between freedom and solitude so I watched Into the Wild, the true story of a college graduate who leaves his friends and family behind to live in the Alaskan wilderness by himself.
Instead of finding existential truths in solitude, he ends up eating poisonous berries and dies alone. I watched the film with rapture, making all the inevitable comparisons between his nomadic experience and mine. As the protagonist lay dying, he forces his emaciated fingers grab a pen and write one last message: “Freedom is only real when shared.”
The bus stopped just as the film finished. I looked out the window and felt deja-vu. I recognized our location, desolate truck stop about twenty miles outside of Zaragoza, in the dry foothills of Aragon. As I alighted and felt the warm, dry air coming off the bald brown hills, for a moment I felt I was somewhere off the 395 in California, taking a pit stop with my family on the way to Mammoth Lakes.
I had been here before, traveling in the other direction in another set of circumstances. We were surrounded by semi-trucks from across Europe, their drivers taking naps in the cabins behind the wheel. I saw myself from 22 months ago, as a dust-covered English teacher hitchhiking from San Sebastian to Barcelona. I had walked up to the truck doors and asking the drivers if they could give a humble traveler a lift towards Barcelona. I had nodded patiently after polite refusals in Czech, Hungarian, French, Spanish and German before a car picked me up and raced me towards Barcelona.
It seemed like I was a different person then. Had I really changed so much? I remember the decision to set out hitching quite clearly. I had wanted to escape society and be on my own. I had been settled as an English teacher in San Sebastian for over a month and a half, and I had been so busy making friends that I had yet to leave the city to explore Spain – a long time by my standards. I had felt my youthful restlessness giving way to stability, maturity and the responsibility of work. I was starting to put down roots and I felt the urge to move. I bought a map of Iberia and imagined adventures between my home on the northern coast and the distant towns of Seville, Lisbon, and Barcelona.
I jumped at the first opportunity – a four day weekend, plenty of time for adventure. I bid farewell to my roommates and walked out my door to the gas station on the outskirts of town. I held a cardboard sign in my hands – BCN. After an hour of talking to drivers, I got a ride to Pamplona.
It had been a trip to momentarily escape from the life I was building in San Sebastian. I was sharing an apartment with seven other people, and though I was enjoying their company, I felt I didn’t have a moment to myself. I yearned the solitude of the road, the emptiness of Spain’s meseta in which I hoped to hear the truths of life so often muffled by the chaos of the cities and the murmur of friends.
It had taken me two days to reach the gas station where I now stood, almost two years later. I had waited nearly six hours to get a ride out of Pamplona. My first lift took me only 20 kilometers. By dusk, I found myself standing on a thin piece of shoulder between an empty two lane highway and acres of vacant farmland. In the emptiness of the meseta, I’d listened for the words of wisdom I’d sought. I only heard trucks passing by without slowing down. I smelt manure, I felt hungry and tired, and I wondered why I hadn’t just taken the bus to Barcelona.
Two years later, I smiled looking back on that moment. Despite all the impractical romanticism of that adventure, I’d finally found a ride with a semi truck whose driver told me he’d take me all the way to Barcelona in one shot, but I told him I’d wanted to see Zaragoza. When he said he couldn’t get off the highway with his 18-wheeler, I insisted on being dropped off on the edge of a six-lane freeway at midnight and hiking between the off-ramps through the bush into the center of town. It had been my own, more modest attempt at going into the wild.
This time I’d elected to take the bus for 30€. But I hadn’t hitchhiked then to save cash. I’d done it for the adventure, to open up the possibilities waiting between A-B, chance encounters I knew I could would not find in my assigned seat on the tourist bus. That adventure turned out to be the first of many larger steps, culminating in my decision to pack up my life in Spain, cut myself loose completely and try to work as a sailor on a ship sailing around the world.
It made me think about what had changed within me since then. Perhaps the quiet emptiness of the sea had reminded me of the joys of coming into port, to the warmth of civilization and company. Maybe after so many wild adventures, the restlessness of youth was finally leaving my bones.
I felt happy with today’s decision. The first time I’d passed through this station, I was fleeing society for the open road. Now I was beginning to appreciate the necessity of company and the folly of solitude for it’s own sake.
The bus driver honked the horn and we re-boarded the bus. I looked back on the truck stop, doubting that my hitching days were over, but promising that the next time I stick out my thumb, I’ll do so in the company of another kindred soul.